For much of the last decade, Jennifer Moses and her husband Ron Beller leapt across the pond, from America to Britain and back, picking up the best from each culture. Both former Goldman Sachs employees, the two transitioned into education — in London, Moses participated in the creation of a charter school equivalent (known there as academies), while Beller took a role advising New York City school chancellor Joel Klein in restructuring public education during the Bloomberg administration.
Back in the U.S. today, in Contra Costa and Solano counties in the Bay Area, Moses and Beller founded a growing charter school network, Caliber Schools, a growing network of “second-generation” charter schools. Instead of top-down administration, unrelenting intensity and constant cramming for tests to get into college, Caliber focuses on fostering curiosity, joy and the deeper learning skills to succeed in college. NationSwell spoke to Moses about the challenges and opportunities of the American public school system.
What’s the best advice you have ever been given on leadership?
I’m still learning, but I would think the best advice is that people can only take feedback in bite-sized morsels. And that has to affect how you interact with anyone who works with you or for you. Honestly, it’s so profound it’s really changed me, because it’s not actionable if it’s not bite-sized.
What’s on your nightstand?
I’m reading “War and Peace.” I set myself that objective for the year. I’m about 300 pages in, and it’s gonna be a long one.
What innovations in your field are you most excited about right now?
I am excited about technology, even though it’s very early days in a bunch of ways. I think that technology enables personalization and data-driven decision-making. And I think that those are really, really, really important to helping each and every student achieve his or her best. I can honestly tell you that there’s a ton of education software out there; none of it’s very good. There’s a ton of student information systems, but it’s super early days. It’s not like I can point to anything and say this is really great, but it is transforming education and what we can do and how we can target individuals. I just don’t see how you can have a top school without technology. I’m excited about it as a tool, but by the way, I don’t think we can replace teachers with technology, but we can leverage teachers with technology.
What’s your biggest need right now?
I know this is going to sound sad, but we really need to raise some money. We have to build buildings because the district won’t provide us with facilities. They move us around every year; we have to fight them all the time, and it really holds back what we’re doing. There’s a law called Prop 39 in California, which says that districts have to offer charter schools equivalent facilities. They don’t really want to do that, and the law doesn’t have a lot of teeth. So you have to fight them, you have to drag parents up to school board meetings and negotiate. In Richmond, we have 600 kids in about 36 portables [temporary buildings], and we’re gonna be there again next year when we have 800 kids. When it rains, kids have to run outside in the rain. We don’t have a gym, there isn’t a library. Last year when we opened, we didn’t even have adequate bathrooms; we didn’t have water.
I think we [also] need human capital. Talent is the biggest issue: finding and retaining teachers. Part of that is economic: we basically have to operate on public financing, because that’s what sustainable and scaleable and frankly, a way to show districts that this can make them better. But I think trying to figure out ways to give teachers a sense of their value and importance beyond monetary would be really, really helpful…whether it’s providing them with a discounted ticket to a baseball game or some recognition. We’ve even been talking about telling teachers to board the airplane first, like veterans. We’re trying to think of ways we can honor the sacrifice people are making to do this job. It’s really hard and it doesn’t pay.
What inspires you?
I have a really passionate belief that the current system is unfair, and that these kids deserve the same kinds of opportunities my own kids have. The fact that they’re a different color or their parents don’t make a lot of money is not a good reason for them not to have opportunity. I just think it’s an injustice, and it’s profound.
What’s your perfect day?
I like to spend time with my husband. I like to go for a run. I love a great meal, and I love going to a baseball game or maybe the theater — in the sunshine. Today’s a perfect day out here.
What’s your proudest accomplishment?
My family. I have a wonderful husband I adore and three fabulous kids. That’s the hardest stuff.
What don’t most people know about you that they should?
I used to be a dancer when I was young. I only dance very rarely now. I took a class recently. It’s been so long, it’s really hard at this stage. I really love it though, because I hate gyms.
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This interview has been edited and condensed.